P.S. Deeper into writing: Understanding characters wants and needs

I recently wrote about gaining perspective, understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people, and how this can positively affect one’s writing. There is something else that goes into this as well and that is understanding the wants and needs of other people, and, to extend that into the world of writing, really coming to understand the wants and needs of our characters. To further this, we also must look at how different characters in our stories may not understand the wants and needs of another character and how or why this may create conflict.

While traveling recently with my husband, we boarded the plane eagerly hoping to get one of the rare exit row seats. Both he and I are tall and therefore crave the extra leg room. Sadly, we were soon to find out that a certain airline has now squeezed in two rows of seats into the exit row area. My husband sat in one row and then the other, trying to determine which had more leg room. “It’s not that big of a deal,” the flight attendant said. “It’s only a 56-minute flight.” The flight attendant was in the row next to us. Standing. His head not even hitting the low-hanging underside of the overhead baggage container. He clearly did not understand the plight of tall people while traveling. It was a little thing to him. A much bigger deal for us. This guy had never traveled anywhere with his knees lodged firmly into the unpadded backing of the seat in front of him. He’s never hit his head on the multiple doorways worldwide that were clearly not designed for anyone of significant stature. It’s a short people’s world, folks!

But this got me thinking, how often do I explore these kinds of little misunderstandings in my writing? Not often. I realized that rarely do I search out these little details in character and relationship building within my stories. How much better could it make my writing? A lot, probably. By including these real-life interactions, we create a more developed character, a more relatable character, a richer world for our readers to explore. And, I noticed that I wasn’t even really thinking about these small things when approaching my stories. These little wants and needs of particular characters lead to massive background stories that can be explored. And, whether or not I actually write them, those experiences occurred to those characters in their fictional world and would therefore affect the way they interact with others in the portion of their story that I am writing. We, as writers, must take that into account.

So, next time you’re trying to write conflict into a scene, ask yourself, what is something Character A might not understand about Character B? How might this escalate or irritate a situation? How might this change a relationship or a story? It’s the little things that we, as a writer, must know about our characters and should use to fully explore the world we are creating.

And, in the real world, let’s try to keep this in mind too. Others have different wants and needs than you. So before saying “it’s not that big of a deal” try to imagine that it might just be for them. There are people in this world dealing with much more than insufficient leg room.


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